Jesus Changes Everything
When Jesus came, everything changed. The lives of the apostles changed. They went from being simple workers and provincial Jewish men to leading the movement that changed the face of the world and introduced the largest religion that has ever existed.
On a more personal level:
• Sick people were healed
• Possessed people were delivered
• Sinful people were forgiven and changed
• Aimless people were given purpose
• Spiritually destitute people were enriched
In our flood plain vision, we speak of an openness to change. That change is typified in Jesus Himself. Even the Covenant of Moses was interpreted through the New Covenant.
This meal was the Passover. There are many, deep traditions surrounding the Seder. It has developed over the centuries as it moved from place to place with the Jews. It’s beginnings go back to the time of Moses and the end of the Plagues of Egypt, when God saved the Israelites from the angel of death who passed through Egypt, killing the first born.
I am no expert. An alert 10 year old Jewish child is more familiar with the Passover meal than I am, so I will not attempt to explain all the details of the meal Jesus ate. Jesus chose this meal to introduce something new to His people, using bread and wine.
Luke, possibly the only Gentile to write a biblical book, gives us a few details and we will follow his lead:
Jesus poured out a cup he refused to drink
This changed everything.
The Passover meal has four traditional cups of wine. The first is blessed with a prayer. Jesus’ blessing would have been similar to the one still used today:
Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, who hast created the fruit of the vine ... Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, who has sustained us and enabled us to reach this season
Then He didn’t drink it Himself.
It was unheard of. You couldn’t do that. According to ancient sources, the Passover wine was required of everyone, no exceptions. If you were too poor to afford it, even if you had to sell your services or borrow money, you had to drink it. But Jesus didn’t.
When Jesus pronounces this blessing, it has a new shade of meaning. What season is He thanking God for? Is he simply thanking God for another year of life and the arrival of the early harvest?
No, He is thanking His father for the arrival of a new era. This is the era of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ arrival spelled the launching of the Kingdom of God, but clearly, He did not consider it to be fully arrived. Since the era of the Kingdom of God is Jesus’ era, He will refrain from the cup until it is fulfilled.
Immediately the Apostles can see they are in for an unusual experience. The Passover was already a night unlike any other. At the feast the youngest at the table asks the father four questions, introduced by:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
We don’t know who the youngest person at the table was. It was, perhaps, James the Younger who asked the question on this evening. As the host, Jesus’ answers may have been the traditional answers, but His actions would have demonstrated that the night was even more different than they expected.
Already, before the meal was properly underway, the host had departed from tradition.
Jesus served bread that should not have been served
This changed everything.
It is not immediately obvious, but comparing Gospels we can gather the order of what is happening here.
Jesus gave thanks
We, as Gentiles, celebrate these elements of the Passover in isolation. So, the blessing of the bread comes across to us as a spiritual activity performed over this very special bread. In fact, the blessing was a normal part of the meal. It was spoken after they were done eating the Passover lamb.
It is an odd difference between Christians and Jews that many Christians thank God for food before they eat, and many Jews give thanks afterward. I’m sure there is some very good theological reason for this. I have not found it. Jesus’ thanks were the regular thanks given for the meal, after they had eaten.
The lamb was the last food to be eaten at the Passover. Today, a small piece of bread is eaten instead, since without a Temple the lamb may not be appropriately sacrificed. Matthew tells us that Jesus took the bread "while they were eating." Luke tells us that he distributed it after they gave thanks.
In other words,
• They ate the lamb
• They pronounced the traditional thanks
• Then Jesus introduced a piece of bread
This was completely out of line, since the lamb should have been the last food eaten that night. For Passover, there was no dessert. In effect, just as some of us save our favorite food for last when we eat dinner, at the Passover, the most anticipated food of the evening was the lamb.
But Jesus changed all that.
He, instead, made the bread more important. He broke a piece and introduced it as His own body. The apostles had not yet completely grasped the concept that Jesus had to die, so this had to be upsetting and even disturbing. He had introduced the idea before and dozens of his disciples left him standing with the 12. Jesus invited them to leave too if they wanted to, but they chose to stay.
Now the broken body of Jesus is presented as bread, and not just his broken body ... but "broken for you."
Again, they knew of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness, but the concept of His own substitutionary death had not yet been introduced as the basis for that forgiveness. This was a huge leap, that would take a few years to understand and even longer to work into something that could be communicated clearly.
Jesus’ death was the source of his forgiveness (video).
The hands that would soon be pierced broke this bread and instituted it as something that should be on-going. These men, sitting around this table, were meant to add the broken body of Jesus to their Passover observance.
This bread is strongly associated with the Passover lamb. Jesus is aligning Himself with the redemptive significance of that sacrifice. As the lamb was killed in place of the Israelites in Egypt, Jesus would be killed in the place of those who took the bread.
Jesus enhanced the meaning of the cup
And this changed everything
Remember, there were four Passover cups of wine. This one, the third one, after the blessing of the meal was, perhaps the most important of them all. It was called the "Cup of Blessing" since it is drunk after the blessing on the meal. It is sometimes called the "cup of redemption" because it is associated with the blood of the Passover lamb. It is also called "The Cup of Elijah" since the Bible promises that Elijah would come in association with the coming of Messiah.
But Jesus added a whole new significance to this cup. Instead of associating it with the blood of the lamb, He associates it with His own blood. Instead of the Covenant between God and Israel as introduced by Moses, He associates it with a New Covenant.
The apostles had heard of this New Covenant before. They had heard of it from the prophet Jeremiah:
"Indeed, a time is coming," says the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them," says the LORD. "But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land," says the LORD. "I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people. People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me," says the LORD. "For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done."
(Jeremiah 31:31-34 NET.)
This was a grand day of great moment!
The Redemption cup was no longer only the redemption of the people of Israel from the Egyptians, it was the redemption of all who followed Jesus
• from their sins
• from their ignorance
• from estrangement from God
God had promised a New Covenant, and Jesus was saying, "This is it!" In the context of this Passover meal, so steeped in the sanctity of the first Covenant, Jesus was introducing the New one.
• No longer would the Passover Lamb be the significant food of the meal
• The broken body of Messiah would be the climax
• No longer would the Cup of Redemption stand for blood of the past creation of a covenant people
• It would be the blood of the Messiah, poured out in a New Covenant
The magnificent dream of God would be fulfilled, He would be their God and they would be His people. The promise of Jeremiah, that the people would have God’s will no longer relegated to stone tablets, but written on their very hearts. Their sins would be forgiven and remembered no more!
Jesus changed everything
Jesus’ disciples would never see a Passover meal the same. Though they would continue to celebrate Passover and Jesus’ Resurrection as a single event for many decades, until Gentiles became more abundant than Jews in the Christian faith and misguided prejudice changed the practice.
Most Gentiles do not observe Passover, though many Jews who accept Jesus as their Messiah do. Hence, churches have only the two elements Jesus emphasized left, the bread and the cup. We observe their symbolic significance with a few things in mind:
The covenantal meal is for those who are part of the New Covenant
At Norma Mennonite Church we say, "if you are a believer in Jesus and you have been baptized as a believer, you are welcome to take the elements." Baptism is the symbol that Jesus gave us for discipleship in the New covenant. The central point is that this meal we call communion is an important part of the covenant, a memorial sign of Jesus sacrifice of which we have become partakers. Paul says it is a dangerous thing to take communion while treating our discipleship lightly or with neglect.
We speak of "open communion." Some churches do not allow non-members to eat and drink the meal. We do. We only ask that each person, no matter what church they are a member of, is honest with herself or himself about their condition before God.
We hold the bread and cup as signs
Some Churches see the bread and wine as something more mystical, even physically substantial. They see the bread and wine as mystically becoming the physical body and blood of Jesus.
Along with most protestant churches we see them as representative reminders, signs, or symbols. But they are more than simple symbols, they are integral to our spiritual health. Jesus commands us to take them in memory of Him, so we do. Like baptism, we do not believe the elements themselves have any inherent power, but when taken as a spiritual sign, they have deep significance. It is helpful to associate them as closely as we can with Jesus’ death. I like to think of this signal meal as contributing to my spiritual health as bread and fruit contribute to my physical health.
Also, like baptism, it is an action commanded by Jesus, some call these actions sacraments, we call them ordinances. What is the difference? That is a huge argument that is better left alone. Allow me to say this, I won’t quibble the difference. One says the action is sacred, the other says it is ordained. I won’t argue with either statement.
If they aren’t the "real" body and blood of Jesus what are they?
More than the elements themselves, the purpose for which they are used, and the attitude of the heart are important. They are bread and crushed grapes, but Jesus’ command, His use of them, and our compliance with both make the meal something quite special.
We usually use simple, unleavened bread. This is what Jesus served at the Passover and leaven, or yeast, is often seen in the Bible as a symbol of sin, so we generally follow that custom. Most of the time, you may have noticed that we use tortillas or Matzos, This is a simple, wheat flatbread without yeast, in most ways similar to sacrificial bread that would have been commonly used in the Temple. It is uncomplicated.
We use grape juice rather than fermented wine, though the wine Jesus used was almost certainly fermented. There are good symbols in fermented wine:
• The bible refers to it as a source of joy and a symbol of wrath, the opposite sides of God’s will
• It is warm and a little sour, calling blood to mind
• The ferment calls for patience and time, two important features of God’s character
• Fermented wine is dangerous if treated lightly, as is our God
I have no personal problem using either wine or grape juice, which is still pressed grapes, like wine, but stopped from fermentation by pasteurization.
Using grape juice is a practice that began right here in Vineland when Dr. Thomas Welch, a dentist was visited one Sunday afternoon by a drunken man, who had begun his binge with communion. Welch was a prohibitionist and the Communion Steward at Vineland Methodist Church, so he experimented with pasteurizing grape juice specifically to produce a wine for communion that would not lead a person into drunkenness. He called it "Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine." His process worked and his son Charles marketed the product and the process. Thus Welch’s Grape Juice is now a landmark in our grocery stores.
I do not oppose the use of fermented wine in communion, but I use grape juice for the same reason it was invented. Some people struggle with alcoholism and I would rather they did not struggle because of their worship.
During this special time of worship, you are invited to pray, to praise God, and to give. Also, you are invited to join the disciples of Jesus throughout the world and throughout history in obedience to Jesus. He changed everything, allow this moment to continue to change you.